HOW HE SEES IT Tough questions on Iraq come too late

Two storybook-like characters -- one born in Texas, the other in Alabama -- who rose from challenging childhoods to some of the highest positions in government ought to be reason to rejoice.
Instead, the ascent of Alberto Gonzales and Condoleezza Rice to top national posts in the Bush administration causes many of us to lament, not because we envy them or wish them ill, but because they seem to have acquiesced to the power of conceit that has not served the nation well.
Rice, who as a child surely felt the sting of segregation in her native Birmingham, was confirmed last week as secretary of state. The 85-13 vote in the Senate, although substantial, represents the worst support for such a nominee since Henry Clay's confirmation in 1825.
On the same day in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales, who was raised in a Houston-area barrio, received a majority vote to send his nomination as attorney general to the Senate floor this week.
To the surprise of many political observers, the vote was 10-8 and along party lines, indicating that this son of migrant workers has substantial opposition, although not enough to deny him the job.
Because of their amazing stories -- achieving the American dream despite the obstacles in their early lives -- it was widely thought that no one in the Senate would dare vote against the first black woman for secretary of state or the first Hispanic nominated as attorney general.
But then came the Senate committee hearings in which each exhibited an arrogance that has largely defined this administration. Equally disturbing was their refusal to acknowledge mistakes, particularly those related to the build-up to the war in Iraq and to the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Understanding that both Rice and Gonzales have been longtime friends and confidants of the president, their appearances before the committees suggested that even in their new positions they were likely to be more loyal to the man who nominated them than to the country.
That is frightening.
Allegiance to Bush
While in their positions of national security adviser and White House counsel, respectively, Rice and Gonzales naturally declared their allegiance to the president, serving him in a more confidential and consultative role.
In their new positions, although chosen by the president to serve, the two have a greater responsibility to the government and, more so, to the American people.
The senators -- of both parties -- who during the hearings skewered Rice and expressed dismay at Gonzales' lack of forthrightness, were doing their jobs.
But in the end, despite those questions and answers, only Democrats and one independent had the courage to vote against Rice's confirmation.
They had every right to question intently, to press for some sense of commitment to the American public and, in the end, to vote against the nominees if that is what they deemed appropriate.
As a rule, the president ought to be granted the privilege of having those people around him who he thinks are capable and trustworthy. Barring any known severe character flaw, criminal activity or serious ethical dilemma, the men and women of his choosing should be confirmed.
That is not to say that they should not be challenged, prodded to explain their reasoning on various issues and put on notice that Congress will play assertively its constitutional role in this nation's system of checks and balances.
So, regardless of how they eventually voted or will vote this week, I applaud those senators who made it clear that despite the ethnicities or the remarkable life stories of the nominees, at least some members of Congress would hold them accountable for their actions and be on alert as these two government officials take on significantly more important roles.
My greatest disappointment -- with the senators, not the nominees -- is that the thorough questioning and actions I've witnessed in recent days did not come before the war in Iraq.
What if more senators had stood their ground then?
What if they had examined the issues more closely and demanded more answers from this administration two years ago?
What if they had not been afraid to dissent?
We might never have gone to war.
And more than 1,400 U.S. servicemen and women might still be alive.
X Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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